Needs More AIPAC!
In comments downblog, Roque Nuevo is looking for something to back up E.D.’s assertion that “No other foreign policy lobby is as active or as strong as AIPAC.”
Whatever one’s feelings about American policy in the Middle East, I don’t think his overall point should be that controversial. I spent a fair amount of time around Capitol Hill in the late ’90s/early 2000s, including several months as an intern in a Congressional office during college.* Prior to that experience I had never even heard of AIPAC, even though I was then fully supportive of US Middle East policy. By the time I went back to school, the letters AIPAC were as branded into my head as NAM and NRA. Indeed, AIPAC has a lobbying budget that ranges between about a 25-40% of all other foreign affairs lobbies combined, although it is still modest compared to many domestic lobbying budgets. AIPAC events were and to my knowledge are some of the most heavily attended gatherings and policy forums on Capitol Hill – of any interest group, full stop.
And I have to say, I don’t think there’s anything sinister or wrong about AIPAC acting this way – their modus operandi is quite similar to just about any other influential interest group. They do a magnificent job of grassroots lobbying, with an active grassroots membership, maintain the wonkish aura of intellectualism that is so necessary to be a credible think tank, and lobby on a set of issues where Americans are broadly sympathetic to their goals.
The problem is that AIPAC is just about the only well-organized and broad-based interest group with a focus on foreign policy: the Cuban-American and, to a lesser extent, the Greek-American lobby, are well-organized but not broad-based; and the Irish-American lobby is broad-based but not particularly well-organized. Moreover, none of those interest groups are concerned with issues that are remotely as important as American policy in the Middle East.
Worse, there really aren’t any credible interest groups that provide an opposing viewpoint to AIPAC on Middle East policy, which leaves AIPAC as the only credible interest group to whom members of Congress can turn for policy advice. To be sure, there are interest groups who offer a competing viewpoint, but they are either small and disorganized or radicals that have no discernable interest in a “safe and secure Israel.”
Despite the deep contempt and suspicion in which Americans hold lobbyists, lobbyists fulfill an enormously important role in our political system. By the very nature of having enough of an interest in an issue to lobby the government on that issue, lobbyists accumulate far more expertise in their area of interest than any given legislator, and often more than most relevant Executive branch officials. This makes them valuable sources of information for formulating policy, especially when a given official sympathizes with the group’s overall objectives but lacks the knowledge necessary to craft policy that achieves those objectives. Such a scenario happens quite frequently – after all, legislators and government officials are humans, not omniscient beings, and the number of issues on which any given official has more than a passing knowledge are going to be quite few just like any other human.
So if you’re a government official who is deeply concerned with increasing consumer product safety, you turn to groups like Public Citizen and the National Resources Defense Council to tell you how to do that; if you are deeply concerned with helping blue collar workers, you turn to the AFL-CIO to tell you how to do that; if you are deeply concerned with reducing tax burdens, you turn to Americans for Tax Reform or the Club for Growth; and if your goal is to create a “safe and secure Israel,” you turn to AIPAC.
In the specific case of AIPAC, though, its area of interest is of unique importance because it is so closely intertwined with national security. Moreover, Americans overwhelmingly believe that a “safe, secure Israel” is both vital to our national security and a moral imperative – myself and, I think, most of my co-bloggers here included. As is often the case in interest group politics, the trouble is that there is no well-constituted competing interest group that both seeks a “safe, secure Israel” as a primary goal and has a differing viewpoint as to how to accomplish that goal.
Since Americans so overwhelmingly view a “safe, secure Israel” as an integral part of American foreign policy, interest groups that lack this as a primary goal have few policymakers that are interested in their policy preferences – which is probably as it should be. After all, why should a Member of Congress listen to a group that has goals that are fundamentally at odds with both the Member and the Member’s constituency?
But with no alternative voices seeking the same or similar goals as AIPAC, and little popular support for a policy that seeks different goals from AIPAC, AIPAC is left as the sole voice to whom government officials may turn for education. And while I have no doubts that AIPAC sincerely believes that its particular set of policy prescriptions is the best way to achieve a “safe, secure Israel,” it’s still only one view and thus likely to fail to consider unintended consequences.
The strange thing about all this is that AIPAC in some ways represents everything that a good and ethical interest group should be. The particularly shady aspects of lobbying in the US usually come about when an interest group is trying to get officials to care enough about their issue to “do something”; in other words, the biggest corruption problems on the federal level, at least, usually have to do with obtaining access. But for the most part, AIPAC doesn’t have to worry about this – American policymakers are already intensely interested in the issues about which AIPAC is concerned. Indeed, if you look at AIPAC’s lobbying budget, you’ll find that it is quite reasonable, often below $1 million per annum and never above and never above $2.5 million, and on average less than the NRA. It also claims that it does not make campaign contributions, a fact that Open Secrets seems to confirm.
But policymakers need a place to turn for information on how to make Israel “safe and secure” – and AIPAC is the only organization to which they can realistically turn, the tiny and nubile J Street notwithstanding. This isn’t AIPAC’s fault, nor does it imply that AIPAC undermines democracy. Quite the opposite in fact – AIPAC performs a valuable function in our democracy; the real problem is that there simply aren’t enough interest groups that focus on Middle Eastern foreign policy.**
*Yeah, I know – how much can an intern pick up in a few months of answering mail and picking up phones? It’s not as if I was hanging around in private meetings with lobbyists or drafting legislation or deciding what the Congressman should and should not co-sponsor. The thing is, opening mail and answering phones can give you a pretty good idea of who the major players are in a given policy area.
**I’d say that’s at least partly an unintended consequence of campaign finance and lobbying restrictions…but that’s a topic for a different day.